MDA: Detecting the Unexpected

MDA Geospatial Services International provides insight to a variety of customers


Like many companies providing products and solutions to the GEOINT Community, MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) is involved in more than just intelligence and surveillance. While the company is probably best known in the GEOINT world for operating the RADARSAT program, MDA is a multinational communications and information company that does business in sectors ranging from satellite imagery and remote sensing to space robotics and robotic surgery.

David Belton, vice president of MDA Geospatial Services International, said there are two core pillars to his business unit.

“One is the satellite image products and their derived services—that’s clearly the overarching source of data for the majority of services we provide, including standard image products, mosaics, DEMs, and others,” Belton said. “The other pillar is our overall change detection service capability, which we draw on multiple information sources and sensors to perform.”

MDA was founded in Vancouver, Canada, in 1969 as an Earth observation and remote sensing company. As it grew, MDA leveraged its remote sensing capabilities for other opportunities, such as supplying satellite ground stations for government customers.

The company began to invest in geospatial intelligence services in 1993, when it helped launch RADARSAT International, the company responsible for commercializing RADARSAT-1 products and services. MDA eventually acquired RADARSAT International as a wholly owned subsidiary and rebranded it as MDA Geospatial Services International in 2006.

Since its entry into the geospatial services industry, MDA has been the commercial distributor of products and services derived from RADARSAT-1, which ended its mission in March 2013. MDA continues to operate RADARSAT-2, which it launched in 2007. One of MDA’s major collaborations with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) is a multi-year supply mechanism for RADARSAT data products, which NGA and other U.S. government customers use for a variety of defense and civil applications.

“One of the primary uses of RADARSAT data is daily charting of ice in the Arctic that is performed by the National Ice Center,” Belton said.

In addition to standard imagery products from RADARSAT-2, MDA also offers change detection services, providing additional surveillance information not offered by standard image products.

“Our change detection services use both optical and radar data sources that provide imagery over very broad areas at moderate resolution, as opposed to very high-resolution data sets,” Belton said. “And the reason we use those types of data sets is the value we deliver looking at very broad regions. We tip and cue where [our users] should be looking.”

Belton added this approach is particularly useful when locating important areas of activity that are essentially hiding in plain sight.

“We have customers who are interested in all the activity that’s happening in large regions like the Middle East, for example,” he said. “There are known hot spots and places where the high-value targets are understood. However, what are often missed are the unknown areas of interest. We have services and products that help to uncover and detect human activity in places where no activity is expected.”

In addition to observing human activity, MDA’s change detection services monitor many different types of changes with applications for a wide range of industries. Some of these include offshore oil monitoring, deforestation and crop monitoring, maritime surveillance, obstruction and airport mapping, and surface asset monitoring for mining.

Looking ahead, Belton said MDA Geospatial Services International has its eye on the current trend of satellite constellations made up of multiple small satellites, rather than a large, single satellite.

“The much reduced cost of building and launching satellites today, compared to five years ago, has enabled the constellation trend,” he said. “It’s a bit of a game changer in terms of the data supply … It still remains to be seen the degree to which these new providers can offer a meaningful, high-value service. We’re closely monitoring the situation to see where things go, and exploring business partnerships with the new providers. We’re also participating in some of the constellation initiatives through other parts of our company.”

Specifically, MDA is building and will launch in 2018 the RADARSAT Constellation Mission as part of a project sponsored by the Canadian government. The constellation will consist of three satellites and extend the capabilities currently provided by RADARSAT-2, enabling faster repeat coverage and targeted revisits.

“That’s the next generation,” Belton said. “It’s a different business model than RADARSAT-2 as it is a Canadian government-owned mission, but we’re in discussions to commercialize the data. We’re positioning for the future evolution of that business, so we can supply data to the international community in 2019 and beyond.”


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